We are emotional creatures: even the most intelligent of us can be fooled when our emotions overrule our reason. Many survivors of cults, abusive relationships and extremist groups report that they were easy prey for manipulation because they were vulnerable: grieving a loved one, recovering from a breakup, in an unfamiliar location, or even just running on an empty stomach.

emotional vulnerabilityAlthough it’s important to cultivate good critical thinking skills, it’s much harder to detect – and resist – manipulation when we’re in an emotionally vulnerable state. Predators know this instinctually, and use emotional manipulation to keep their victims off-balance. This is why proper emotional hygiene is an important part of healthy skepticism: to protect ourselves against fraud, we need to recognize emotional manipulation and understand how our emotions can be used to steer us into a dangerous situation.

Powerful emotions like anger or outrage don’t just make us “see red”; feelings of indignation at a perceived injustice can blind us to the actual facts, such as when the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador was coached to testify that she witnessed Iraqi troops tipping babies from their incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital. This horrifying story was false, but it manipulated millions to support a war they otherwise would not have.

On the other end of the emotional scale, feelings of love and friendship can be manipulated to blind us to danger: many people feel that certain destructive, high-control groups “just can’t” be a cult, because “the people are so friendly!” Putting aside the fact that friendly, genuinely “nice” people can be seduced into an abusive group, many recruiters for high-control groups use “love-bombing” to draw people in, giving them a sense of belonging and friendship – disguising the fact that the love is conditional and based on their cooperation. Many survivors of high-control groups joined because they felt a deep connection to the people in the group or were even seduced into joining by sexually attractive members who flirted with them to draw them closer. Love – or at least sexual attraction – can and does make fools of us all.

Manipulative groups often use the emotions of awe and wonder to draw in recruits, attributing the miraculous to their leader or their practices and even arranging for “miracles” to happen at their events. Similarly, many fraudulent spiritual and “self-help” gurus will use dancing, singing or chanting to bring about a “peak” experience. The heightened emotions and euphoria generated during active group activities can lower our resistance to a scam artist who is trying to manipulate us into a bad decision.

Good emotional hygiene boils down to a few, simple points of self-care:

  • Make sure you get plenty of sleep.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • If you’re in mourning for a lost loved one or grieving a recent breakup, give yourself time and space to heal.
  • Maintain healthy emotional boundaries – it’s okay to say “no.”
  • Take plenty of time to make important decisions.
  • If you’re experiencing intense emotions, insist on a “cooling off” period before making any decisions.
  • Check your libido at the door – if the connection you feel for that new love is genuine, they will respect your boundaries.
  • If you must “buy now”, DON’T.

Sometimes the most important decision we can make is the choice not to make a decision – and wait until we’ve had time to relax, use healthy skepticism and make an informed choice with all our mental faculties in good working order.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about emotional hygiene that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!